Helen Di Wu

In the lab of Takanari Inoue, we use and develop new biological tools to study and manipulate live cells. Cell signaling is crucial for all the processes of life at long and short timescales. Growth and development can take years, whereas fight or flight responses take less than a second. Studying how cells signal at fast timescales of seconds to minutes requires novel synthetic biology tools. Previously, all chemical and optogenetic systems allowed the end user to rapidly bring together two proteins with high specificity. To expand what we could achieve, I developed a novel chemically inducible trimerization (CIT) system to bring together three proteins of interest. CIT allows us to rapidly perturb membrane contact sites between organelles, and interrogate tri-organellar interactions. I am now using CIT and other synthetic biology tools to address the role of plasma membrane organization by the protein Pacsin2 on mast cell activation.

Questions & Answers

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

During my graduate school interviews, I felt most at home when talking to Hopkins faculty and students. The research topics excited me, and it was clear that people were passionate about their work. Everything clicked.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

It means a lot to me, both personally and professionally, to get recognized for the work we accomplished in our lab. I am honored and humbled, and hope to live up to the legacy of the successes of the previous award winners.

What contributed to your project’s success?

I had very good mentors who supported me throughout my graduate career. Hideki Nakamura, a previous postdoc in the lab, mentored me through both projects that comprise my thesis work. I am not a cell biologist by training, and his discussions and extensive knowledge really helped guide my research and the way I think as a scientist. My thesis adviser, Takanari Inoue, gave me freedom to explore my own ideas, encouragement when I doubted myself, and scientific guidance. I thank Yuta Nihongaki for generating crucial knockout cell lines. Siew Cheng Phua, Allister Suarez, Hideaki Matsubayashi, Allen Kim, Abhijit Deb Roy and all my labmates (past and present) also contributed much to my project’s success and my daily happiness.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles students and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

Young Investigators’ Day is a great way to celebrate successes of students and fellows in the basic sciences, and pass the torch to the next generation of scientists.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

Scientifically, the first time the CIT system worked was one of my best experiences.

Memorable general life experiences were first-year anatomy dissections, a triathlon, and having fun with friends and labmates. On one particular night, a fun gathering with labmates continued at a speakeasy and ended in the din and smoke and harsh neon lighting of a Korean BBQ place at 4 a.m.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I hope to graduate and look for a postdoctoral position, where I can combine my current skillsets with the study of cell secretion in the context of complexity science.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I love dystopian and mystery genres, so I’m currently “working” on a dystopian mystery novel, heavily inspired by the novels of Margaret Atwood and Gillian Flynn.